Studying drama (plays) was usually a class favorite. Students like to take parts and read the play aloud. But different plays get different responses.
"Antigone," invariably pronounced Anti gone (with emphasis on gone) should be a crowd pleaser. The plot revolves around whether Antigone should obey the laws of the gods and bury her brother or obey the laws of the state and not bury her brother. That's a timeless scenario. Should you obey the dictates of your conscience or the dictates of the state? But whether it is the static delivery of the chorus or the lack of action on stage, students don't get into the play.
One of the last things we read in senior English was "The Importance of Being Ernest." The play is filled with dialogue that depends on word plays, including the title. For example, Aunt Augusta comments about a recent widow that she "seems to me to be living entirely for pleasure now." And Algernon replies, "I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief." To me that's funny. I don't know if it is that by the time students reach the spring of their senior year they just lose interest or if they think literature with a capital L is too serious to be funny. I used to resort to holding up laugh cards at the appropriate time in the dialogue.
The seniors usually did enjoy "Macbeth." The play has lots of action, witches, ghosts and sword fights. I even had one class who decided to reenact the scene where the witches concoct a brew. You know, the one that begins, "Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble." They managed to find reasonable substitutes for the strange ingredients that include, among other things, eye of newt and toe of frog.
Freshmen are usually more enthusiastic. We read "The Miracle Worker" in freshman English. I would introduce the play by telling them it was set in the South and based on a true story about Helen Keller. Invariably, all the girls would then vigorously wave their hands in the air and loudly urge me to pick them for the part of Helen. I then had to explain that Helen was deaf, dumb and blind and only says one word during the whole play "waa waa."
Freshmen also read "Romeo and Juliet." They are usually excited about the prospect of reading the play because they have heard references to it and then there is the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio (which reference surely dates me and I hated the movie). They are not so hardened as to approach Shakespeare with instant disdain. But they don't get the jokes that Shakespeare makes either. Yes, male actors played the parts of women so there are no clinches in Shakespeare. But the actors talked a good game when it came to love and even sex.
Remember the audience Shakespeare was writing for. His audience consisted of, for the most part, teenage males who were apprentices in London. They enjoyed the occasional innuendo.
The play begins with teenage boys getting into a fight because of an insulting hand gesture. Sound familiar? Also in Act I you meet the nurse who provides the comic relief. When Juliet's mother asks if the nurse knows how old Juliet is, she replies that she knows by the 14 teeth she has left that Juliet is 14.
Then the nurse remembers when Juliet was a toddler. The nurse recalls a story about her late husband comforting Juliet when she fell. "Dost thou fall upon thy face? Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit," he told Juliet.
The teenage boys of Shakespeare's day would get that joke.
Paula Travis is a Newton County resident and retired schoolteacher. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.